5 Billion Cell Phones Will Become E-Waste This Year

Over 5.3 billion mobile phones alone will be thrown out this year. baranozdemir / iStock / Getty Images

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Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a growing problem globally as technology develops more and more. With each year, consumers toss last year’s smart watches and cell phones for the latest model. While some people turn their old devices in for recycling, many keep them stockpiled in a junk drawer or toss them out to go to landfill. The international Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum estimates that in 2022, over 5.3 billion mobile phones alone will be thrown out.

According to WEEE Forum, there are about 16 billion phones owned worldwide, and over 5 billion of those are expected to become e-waste this year. Consumers will either throw their old phones in the trash or hoard them away, despite the fact that there are many valuable resources that can be recycled from old phones, including gold, copper, silver and palladium.

WEEE Forum conducted surveys from June to September of this year and found that an average European household has 74 electronic products, like phones, tablets, laptops, hair tools, appliances and other devices. Of those, the average European household keeps nine unused and four broken electronic items.

LED lamps are among the top items to be trashed, and washing machines and tossed white appliances are the largest amount of e-waste by weight. Phones rank no. 4 in small electronic items that are hoarded, or kept despite being unused or broken.

The surveys revealed five top reasons people keep their unused or broken electronics:

  1. 46% say they may use the items again one day
  2. 15% say they plan to sell or give the items away
  3. 13% say they hold onto these items for their sentimental value
  4. 9% say the items may appreciate in value over time and
  5. 7% just don’t know how to dispose of these products.

“We focused this year on small e-waste items because it is very easy for them to accumulate unused and unnoticed in households, or to be tossed into the ordinary garbage bin,” Pascal Leroy, director general of WEEE Forum, said in a statement. “People tend not to realize that all these seemingly insignificant items have a lot of value, and together at a global level represent massive volumes.”

The findings were shared as part of International E-Waste Day, and WEEE Forum hopes to make recycling e-waste easier for consumers through various initiatives, such as setting up collection boxes at grocery stores, providing mailers for consumers to send their products away for recycling and offering pick-up services for old products when companies deliver new electronics.

While recycling keeps these products out of landfills, WEEE Forum also emphasizes that hoarding old electronics is also contributing to e-waste and should be cleared out for recycling.

Magdalena Charytanowicz, communication manager for WEEE Forum and head of International E-Waste Day, said, “These devices offer many important resources that can be used in the production of new electronic devices or other equipment, such as wind turbines, electric car batteries or solar panels — all crucial for the green, digital transition to low-carbon societies.”

In addition to personal actions to reduce e-waste, policies and initiatives from governments and companies are also necessary. The UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), WEEE Forum and the Solving the eWaste Problem Initiative (StEP), released a paper outlining ideas for broader solutions to e-waste, such as deposit and return schemes and digital product passports.

“International E-waste Day reminds us annually of the avalanche of problems we face unless we take appropriate measures, without which global e-waste could double to 100 million tonnes or more in the next 30 years,” said Ruediger Kuehr, founder of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)’s Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme. “We need to understand this growth and counter it with everyone involved: national authorities, enforcement agencies, Producer Responsibility Organisations, original equipment manufacturers, recyclers, researchers and consumers themselves.”

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